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Momentum for democratic reform wanes in Saudi Arabia

UPDATE: The New York Times version of my story is up now. It’s slightly longer than the IHT one. Click here to read it now. Enjoy!

Here is a story I worked on for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune about the slowing of reform in the Kingdom and municipal councils.
Right now it’s only up on the IHT site, but later Thursday morning it should be on the NYT site too.
Click here to read it on the IHT site or just read it below:

By Hassan M. Fattah

JIDDA: It was a scene to warm the heart of any democrat: Here in this autocratic kingdom, elected City Council members vowed to stand up for poor fishermen and ask the government that a large section of seafront, on which a new university was planned, be left accessible to local residents.

After an hour of vigorous discussion recently, the City Council of Jidda actually passed a resolution calling for the waterfront to remain open to the people.

There was one catch – or rather three: The resolution is nonbinding, its wording will not be made public and it is unlikely to have any impact on the government’s plans.

Two years ago, largely at the urging of the Bush administration, the first elections in the history of Saudi Arabia were held for municipal councils in a handful of cities, including Jidda, Riyadh and Mecca. Only men could vote and only half of the members were elected, but still the elections were praised as emblems of change.

Increasingly, however, they are being dismissed as symbols of the opposite: political stagnation.

“We thought all you do is call for elections and you’re done,” said Abdullah al Otaibi, an advocate of change who gave up and moved to Dubai last year to help open a research center. “Now we know things won’t work that easily.”

There are many reasons for the waning prospects for change, Saudi advocates of change say. Factors including an economic boom driven by high oil prices and a more aggressive regional foreign policy have put democratic change on the back burner.

“The curse of the oil money is that it has stopped all reforms,” said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabic, based in Dubai, and a longtime Saudi advocate. “The more money you have, the more arrogant you become, because you think you can implement anything your way.”

Over the past year, the government has cracked down on advocates of change, placed restrictions on their meetings and even scrapped some long-promised initiatives. The city councils have proved to be powerless in the face of Saudi Arabia’s ingrained governmental bureaucracy and a decidedly vague mandate. According to one council member, more than half the decisions made by the councils have not been carried out. Most of the others have been in support of the government.

“The people in the councils want to make you think that they’re working, but ultimately they are powerless,” said Bassim Alim, a prominent Jidda lawyer and an advocate of change. “The rest is all for show.”

It was not supposed to be this way.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wave of terror in the kingdom itself in 2004 and 2005, many Saudis argued that stifling political and economic conditions had turned the kingdom into fertile ground for extremism.

King Abdullah – who at the time was crown prince – set out on a campaign for change, spearheading national dialogues, beginning new programs and popularizing the language of reform.

The environment reinvigorated civil society campaigners throughout the country, and they began openly calling for change.

In 2005, the government instituted elections for new city councils, allowing for half the 14 members of each council to be elected by the local population and the rest to be appointed by the government.

Some change did occur: The country’s vice police force has been forced to restrain itself, and women have seen some of the most overbearing restrictions on day-to-day life eased, though they are still forbidden to do things that women elsewhere take for granted, like drive.

Some laws pertaining to public gathering and criminal procedures were also changed, Alim says, in accordance with requirements of the World Trade Organization, which Saudi Arabia joined in 2006. The city council elections, too, proved a symbolic step. And Saudis have become more willing to step forward and complain, council members say.

Still, many of the efforts have slowed considerably, if not come to a halt, advocates say. As high oil prices filled the country’s coffers and allowed the government to reassert its position as a cradle-to-grave patron of its people, the sense of crisis has ebbed and the impetus for many changes has subsided, they say.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive foreign policy, focused on quelling the Middle East’s numerous crises while responding to Iran’s encroachment into the region, has focused Saudis’ attention outside their borders, further damping the impetus for change.

Advocates also point to a longstanding split within the royal family itself. Matrouk al Falleh, a prominent Saudi change advocate in Riyadh, said he noticed the split in 2003, after he and a group of his compatriots presented then Abdullah with a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy. The prince encouraged the men, but two weeks later, Prince Naif, Saudi Arabia’s mercurial interior minister, appeared to squelch the discussion, noting in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassa that the men had “misunderstood Prince Abdullah.”

Many Saudi advocates have themselves abandoned the change agenda, analysts say, focusing instead on more easily attainable social goals, or simply jumping on the sectarian bandwagon and emphasizing fears of Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Government officials still make a point of mentioning reform and speak in praise of change, but uniformly emphasize that it must come slowly and gradually. In the meantime, security officials have grown less tolerant of advocates who call for things like constitutional monarchy and elections of the consultative Shura council. In February, Saudi Arabia’s security forces rounded up 10 men connected to Saudi Arabia’s reform movement in several cities, charging them with financing terrorism.

The arrests were initially announced as part of the government’s fight against terrorism. Security officials said the men, whose names were not initially disclosed, were collecting money and smuggling it to “suspicious” bodies in Iraq. A day later, however, it emerged that at least three of the men were signatories to a petition directed to the king, calling for a new constitution based on Islamic law, for curbs on the powers of the Interior Ministry, an election of members of the consultative Shura council and more equitable allocation of Saudi Arabia’s wealth and land.

Shocked advocates saw the arrests as a signal for how low their fortunes had fallen. The group submitted the petition to the king this month, but members said they had heard no response.

“You see the absurdity of calling some of these men terrorists,” Falleh said. “They are just doing this to kill off the reform movement and prevent any sympathy toward those were arrested.”

Alim, who represents several of the men, does acknowledge that one of them had been to Iraq twice under the auspices of the Saudi Red Crescent, but insists that the visits were strictly humanitarian.

Alim adds that he, too, would have been arrested but that he had not signed the petition. Instead, he said, the government has banned him from traveling abroad. “Some people feel it’s a hopeless case, that the government is the only force for change,” Hattlan of Forbes Arabic said. “People don’t want to enter a losing war. Society is not on your side, and you have a long way to go.”

Rasheed Abou Alsamh contributed from Riyadh.

Comments (2)

  • Aya

    Excellent article, thank you!

  • Ayaz

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